On the Grid: Nice New Notebooks

If there’s anything I’ve learned definitively about the creative process, it’s that you can’t skimp on tools. Computers, software, and tablets are great and useful for many tasks, but notebooks are the tools I can’t work without. To that end, Princeton Architectural Press puts out Grids & Guides (2015), lovely sets of notebook paper with lines of all kinds.

Grids pads

There’s also the super-good Grids & Guides hardback notebook. Subtitled “A Notebook for Visual Thinkers,” this one has the periodic table of the elements, the planets, the human skeletal system, basic geometry, screw types and sizes, wood joints, alternative alphabets, and 144 blank pages of lines and patterns, some of which I’d never seen before. It’s the coolest thing bound since O’Reilly’s Maker’s Notebook. See below.

Grids & Guides

The Solar System

Grids paper.


These lovely Grids & Guides are available from Princeton Architectural Press. Get on the grid!

Swarm Cities: The Future of Human Hives

The densely populated spaces of our built environment have been slowly redefining themselves. In 1981 there were the nine nations of North America. In 1991 the edge cities emerged. In 2001 we witnessed the worst intentions of a tightly networked community that lacked physical borders, what Richard Norton calls a “feral city.” From flash mobs to terrorist cells, communities can now quickly toggle between virtual and physical organization.

"Ephemicropolis" by Peter Root
“Ephemicropolis” by Peter Root

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

Great American CityAccording to Joel Garreau (1991), an edge city is one that is “perceived by the population as one place” (p. 7), which, like neighborhoods, are staunchly identified with and defended by their residents, resisting outside influence. Conversely, one of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas between such areas, thereby spurring innovation (Where the car used to provide this mass connection, it now hinders it). Deleuze called these areas “any-space-whatever,” but the space in his view is only important for the connections it facilitates. Adam Greenfeld (2013) writes that “the important linkages aren’t physical but those made between ideas, technical systems and practices.” After all, the first condition for a smart city is “a world-class broadband infrastructure” (Townsend, 2013, p.194). Connection is key.

Urban planner Kevin Lynch (1976) writes, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional” (p. 10). In Great American City (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Robert J. Sampson argues for behavior based on our sense of local roots. The neighborhood effect is sort of a structuration between the individual and the network, the local and the global (cf. Giddens, 1984). The neighborhood is where the boundaries matter. It’s where human perception binds us within borders, where nodes are landmarks in a physical network, not connections in the cloud.

There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be all random. — Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls

Out of the MountainsLynch called cities, “systems of access that pass through mosaics of territory” (1976, p. 21). In Out of the Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2013), David Kilcullen defines four global factors determining the future of such mosaics of territory: population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness. As more and more people copulate and populate the planet, they are doing so in bigger cities, near the water, and with more connectivity than ever. Basically the future of human hives is crowded, coastal, connected, and complex.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of swarm publics, highly unstable constellations of temporary alliances that resemble a public sphere in constant flux; globally mediated flash mobs that never meet, fuelled by sentiment and affect, escaping fixed capture.
— Eric Kluitenberg, Delusive Spaces

These “swarm cities,” as I call them, are only as physical as they need to be. And, as connected as they are, are also only as cohesive as they need to be. But the networked freedom to live and work anywhere doesn’t always make the neighborhood irrelevant, it often makes it that much more important.


Beukes, Lauren. (2013). The Shining Girls: A Novel. New York: Mulholland Books, p. 324.

Florida, Richard. (2010). The Great Reset. New York: Harper.

Garreau, Joel. (1981). The Nine Nations of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Garreau, Joel. (1991). Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday.

Giddens, Anthony. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Greenfield, Adam. (2013). Against the Smart City. New York: Do Projects.

Kilcullen, David. (2013). Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media and Technology. New York: NAi/DAP. Inc., p. 285.

Lynch, Kevin. (1976). Managing the Sense of a Region. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, p. 98.

Sampson, Robert J. (2013). Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Townsend, Anthony M. (2013). Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.


Special thanks to Scott Smith of Changeist, who posted a “smart cities” reading list on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Much of the recent reading I’ve done on the topic came from that list.

Building Stories: The Edifice Complex

The house I live in is warped. Its floors undulate as if built on unstable earth or designed by drunken architects. Pipes protrude at odd angles, capped at even odder points. Dutifully obeying gravity and the laws of physics, kitchen drawers and medicine-cabinet doors chronically hang open. I often wonder if the house slouched into this shape or if it was just built this way.

Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit, “In Your Eyes,” was originally a song about buildings. It was called “Sagrada Familia,” and the idea stemmed from two people who were driven to build for very different reasons. “One of them was Antoni Gaudi building his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone Magazine. The construction of the cathedral took ages and was left unfinished when Gaudi was tragically killed in front of it: “He stepped out into the road so he would have a better view of the massive spires on top of the giant building and was hit by a tram.”

Citizens of No Place
(the abstraction of the outside shape is an impression / the fluidity of the inside episodes are stories) — Jimenez Lai

Like the house of breath, the house of wind and voice is a value that hovers on the frontier between reality and unreality.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Citizens of No Place“Cartoon is an enticing way to convey complexity,” opens Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an architectural graphic novel, which “offers narratives about character development, through which the reader can explore relationships, curiosities, and attitudes, as well as absurd stories about fake realities that invite new futures to become possibilities” (p. 7). Using manga to map future forms and dropping references to everyone from Chuck Palahniuk to Robert Venturi, the book is only one facet of Lai and his firm‘s critical design program (see his Briefcase House and White Elephant for two more examples, both of which guest star in the book as well).

The stories of Citizens of No Place are poignant, funny, and based on Lai’s own architectural ideas and life experiences. Lai is a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, my current home institution, and I hope to take my copy of his book to him and have him fix the cover in person.

All buildings are predictions.
All predictions are wrong.
— Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

The other subject of Peter Gabriel’s song about buildings was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester. Gabriel continues. “After the death of her daughter, she became incredibly depressed and, after seeing a medium, became convinced she was being haunted by all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. She started adding rooms to her mansion to house these ghosts, a task which went on nonstop for 38 years until her death.” She held her own house of leaves inside her head.

Chris Ware‘s latest comic seems haunted in the same manner. It’s not actually a single comic book, but a box of them–broadsheets, single strips that unfold four times, a Little Golden book, a hardback, several almost standard comic books–a nonlinear yet interconnected collection of strange stories about the inhabitants of an apartment building. Ware, who has already proven he can design in and draw on any style he pleases, told Comic Book Resources,

There’s no mystery to be unravelled or any hidden secret that will explain everything; the book is simply an attempt to recreate, however awkwardly, the three-dimensionality of our memories and to try to make a story than has no apparent beginning or end, much like our memories, which we can enter from any direction and at any point, which is also the way we get to know people, i.e., a little bit at a time. And yes, the title points both towards the way we put together and take apart memories to make stories about ourselves and others, as well as to the structure of a building itself.

Like a velvet glove cast in concrete, its pieces blown apart and strewn about, Building Stories leaves us to (re)construct the story like so many memories past. It’s not exactly a choose-your-own-adventure book, but, like our own patterned pasts, some assembly is required. Fortunately the parts were designed by one of the best artists working today.

“Every building is potentially immortal,” writes Brand (1994), “but few last half the life of a human” (p. 111). The same can be said of our stories. Whether forced or built this way, the house I live in struggles to tell its tale. Straining against Euclidian geometry, its odd rooms and angles are haunted only by the expectations of its inhabitants. Bachelard (1964) writes, “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (p. 47). This jumbled house is certainly not inert, the current, humble site of my own building stories.


Bachelard, Gaston. (1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon, p. 60.

Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Viking, p. 178.

Danielewski, Mark Z. (2000). House of Leaves: A Novel. New York: Pantheon.

Lai, Jimenez. (2012). Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ware, Chris. (2012). Building Stories. New York: Pantheon.


Special thanks to Jeisler Salunga and Belem Medina for the tip on Lai’s book and to all of my other architecture students for reminding me how cool this stuff is.

Mindfulness and the Medium

Over forty years ago, media philosopher Walter Ong wrote that the “advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or, as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, each maintaining its own basic integrity but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after” (1971, p. 25). That is, a new technology rarely supplants its forebears outright but instead changes the relationships between existing technologies. During a visit to Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Demo Day, Professor Janet Murray told me that there are two schools of thought about the onset of digital media. One is that the computer is an entirely new medium that changes everything; the other is that it is a medium that remediates all previous media. It’s difficult to resist the knee-jerk theory that it is both an entirely new medium and remediates all previous media thereby changing everything, but none of it is quite that simple. As Ted Nelson would say, “everything is deeply intertwingled” (1987, passim).

Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2012), Murray’s first book since 1997’s essential Hamlet on the Holodeck (MIT Press), is a wellspring of knowledge for designers and practitioners alike. Unifying digital media under a topology of “representational affordances” (i.e., computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity), Murray provides applicable principles for digital design of all kinds — from databases (encyclopedic capacity) to games (the other three) and all points in between. There’s also an extensive glossary of terms in the back (a nice bonus). Drawing on the lineage of Vennevar Bush, Joseph Weizenbaum, Ted Nelson, Seymour Papert, and Donald Norman, as well as Murray’s own decades of teaching, research, and design, Inventing the Medium is as comprehensive a book as one is likely to find on digital design and use. I know I’ll be referring to it for years to come.

“Mindfulness” illustration by Anthony Weeks.

Designers can’t go far without grappling with the way a new medium not only changes but also reinforces our uses and understandings of the current ones. For example, the onset of digital media extended the reach of literacy by reinforcing the use of writing and print media. No one medium or technology stands alone. They must be considered in concert. Moreover, to be literate in the all-at-once world of digital media is to understand its systemic nature, the inherent interrelationship and interconnectedness of all technology and media. As Ong put it, “Today, it appears, we live in a culture or in cultures very much drawn to openness and in particular to open-system models for conceptual representations. This openness can be connected with our new kind of orality, the secondary orality of our electronic age…” (1977, p. 305). “Secondary orality” reminds one of the original names of certain technologies (e.g., “horseless carriage,” “cordless phone,” “wireless” technology, etc.), as if the real name for the thing is yet to come along.

These changes deserve an updated and much more nuanced consideration given how far they’ve proliferated since Ong’s time. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012) collects Howard Rheingold‘s thoughts about using, learning, and teaching via networks from the decades since Ong and McLuhan theorized technology’s epochal shift. Rheingold’s account is as personal as it is pragmatic. He was at Xerox PARC when Bob Taylor, Douglas Englebart, and Alan Kay were inventing the medium (see his 1985 book, Tools for Thought), and he was an integral part of the community of visionaries who helped create the networked world in which we live (he coined the term “virtual community” in 1987). In Net Smart, his decades of firsthand experience are distilled into five, easy-to-grasp literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection (critical consumption), and network smarts — all playfully illustrated by Anthony Weeks (see above). Since 1985, Rheingold has been calling our networked, digital technologies “mind amplifiers,” and it is through that lens that he shows us how to learn, live, and thrive together.

These two books are not only thoughtful, they are mindful. The deep passion of the authors for their subjects is evident in the words on every page. A bit ahead of their time, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan gave us a vocabulary to talk about our new media. With these two books, Janet Murray and Howard Rheingold have given us more than words: They’ve given us useful practices.


McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Janet. (2012). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nelson, Ted. (1987). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Redmond, WA: Tempus Books.

Ong, Walter J. (1971). Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.


Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:


Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.


My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:


If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).


Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

TEDxAustin 2011: Right Now.

Quoting Ray Kurzweil, TEDxAustin co-curator Nancy Giordano opened the day by saying that as humans we’re prepared for linear change but completely unprepared for exponential change. We were certainly unprepared for the full day of potential change she and the TEDxAustin crew assembled in the Austin Music Hall on February 19th: Right Now. Giordano warned us a few times of “intellectual whiplash” when the schedule leaped from one topic to entirely another. She never warned us about “expectation whiplash” though. Right Now was a rollercoaster.

Several people* have pointed out that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Sunny Vanderbeck isn’t after the end of capitalism, just capitalism as we know it. In one giant leap toward fixing it, he takes a long-view that includes responsibility for the world in which business is done over short-term gain. In another, he advises openness. No more relying on sweatshops or sneaky offshore practices. If we make and demand that processes be more transparent, change happens. Change is a contagion. … Ralph Wagner showed us the future of biotechnology, then Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth (Crown, 2009), showed us how it can go horribly, unhealthily wrong. Here’s hoping her contagion catches on. She showed us crazy data on genetic food modification, pesticides, and food allergy and cancer rates in the U. S. versus the rest of the world. These are not a pretty pictures of our country or its policies. …  Runner Gilbert Tuhabonye advised us to do our work with joy. He has done his under many circumstances. He advises joy.

“Language and culture are the software of the 21st century,” proclaimed Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of ComminuCard. Um, I’m no rocket scientist (Acevedo is. No, really.), but I would argue that language and culture were the software of every century prior to the 21st. Software is the software of the 21st century. … Osama Bedier monstertrucked through his Skyped-in presentation with his back thrown out and taught us about the history and presumably the future of payment. By way of comically extended metaphor, he also taught us why the limitations of the Space Shuttle are based on the width of horses asses. It’s a great story, and I won’t give it away here. Gregory Kallenberg illustrated how creative media can bring polarized opinions together with his documentary Haynesville (2009) about a giant natural gas reserve (170 trillion cubic feet or the equivalent of 28 billion barrels of oil) in the backwoods of Louisiana. It’s an amazing story of hope and possibility. … Poet and teacher Joaquin Zihuatanejo brought tears to the eyes and chills to the skin with his starkly told stories and dynamic delivery thereof. If you’ve ever doubted the power of words, look up Zihuatanejo. … After we all got hyped up, Flint Sparks made sure everyone got very relaxed. The bumpers and graphics on the screen between and during the talks were excellent, and I was stoked to see Public School among the credits.

In each of our packets, there was a list of three people TEDxAustin thought we should meet. As most conference-goers know, the sidebar conversations are usually as important as the planned speakers, the serendipity of bumping into the new. As John Maeda once put it, “serendipity comes from differences.” Unfortunately, we tend to seek out similarities, and I found some like-minds in the halls (big ups to Kevin and Paul from M3 Design, Todd the freelance writer, and Travis the designer), but even my micro-experience echoed the larger impression of a bunch of white folks patting themselves on the back. By the end of the day, no one had found the three people on their suggested list.

Gary Thompson has some great ideas about how the internet and the cloud should serve us better, but he’ll have to help Sunny Vanderbeck fix capitalism before he’s likely to be able to implement any of them. Companies still want our information to stay separate because it serves them — and capitalism — that way. … Peter Hall was my favorite speaker by far. He talked about the difference between maps and mappings, and showed lots of great examples. He’s at my own University of Texas at Austin, so look for me to be tracking him down soon. … Lionel Tiger, author of The End of Males (St. Martins Press, 2000) and professor from Rutgers University who coined the term “male bonding,” came to defend the men. He made many interesting points about boys growing up believing they’re just bad girls, but the reason we don’t have men’s studies departments and courses on masculinity is the same reason we don’t have White Entertainment Television: It has always already been that. The study of history up until the last 30 or so years has been the study of men. We’re still doing it wrong, but we’re doing it.

TEDxAustin: Right Now ended with a bit of a whimper and not a bang. Tavo Hellmund was the most “sought-after” speaker of this event, but I couldn’t really figure out why. His talk was on the benefits of bringing a Grand Prix Formula 1 facility not only to the United States but to southeast Travis County, which he’s doing. It seemed antithetical to the piped-in Brené Brown talk we’d just heard. … He and Dustin Haisler should talk about generating interest in their communities. The messenger is the message, Hellmund seemed to be saying. Haisler, who spoke last, has obviously read Clay Shirky’s last book, but not Dan Pink‘s. Harnessing the cognitive surplus to renovate local government looks great on a comment card — it’s like democratizing democracy — but incentivizing it with virtual money doesn’t sound feasible. I don’t want to play Farmville with the players of Farmville, so I hardly want my city government run by them. Incentive comes from within. Engagement starts with the person, not the external rewards.

I left TEDxAustin inspired and very glad I managed to slip in, perhaps with a few of my expectations violated. The organizers, curators, participants, and volunteers all deserve massive gratitude and credit for putting this thing together.


Here’s one of the videos of one of the talks we watched at TEDxAustin. It’s Brené Brown from TEDxHouston 2010, and it’s awesome [runtime: 20:45]!



* Michael Hardt, Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek, at least.

Desiring Lines: The Path More Traveled

Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.

Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).

Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James

In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.

Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.

By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.

Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)

Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.


Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.

Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.

James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.


Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.

Culture, Computers, and Communities: Two Recent Books

Culture is technology-driven William Gibson once said, and, with the proliferation of digital media, the aphorism is less and less debatable (if it ever was). If technology is indeed the engine and infrastructure of our culture, then understanding it is tantamount to understanding ourselves.

The books written on the topic could fill a library, and two recent ones caught my eye. The first attempts a broad-reaching macro-view. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (Free Press, 2009) promises not only to get to the bottom of the technology undergirding our culture, but to be an engaging read as well. I first came across Arthur’s work in M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Arthur stumbled upon the theory of increasing returns (what are known in cybernetics and systems theory as reinforcing feedback loops) while attempting to apply biological principles to economics. The academic crossbreeding proved fruitful as Arthur deftly outlined the reasons for the dominance of everything from Microsoft Windows to QWERTY keyboards.

Unfortunately, his mixing and matching of intellectual domains falls short when it comes to the science of technology. First of all, The Nature of Technology starts by conceptualizing the two (nature and technology) as opposing forces, calling them “tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision” (p. 11). As often as it has been employed elsewhere, this is a premise of limited promise. Technology is an extension or continuation of nature. They are parts of the same continuum. Viewing them as adversaries leads to many other fallacies, not the least of which is the attempt to draw a line separating the two. For example, on page 10, Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’re still left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval.” Drawing such an arbitrary line in the sands of time is exactly the mistake that those against technology make. As if speaking and writing aren’t technology. As if harnessing fire or clothing ourselves aren’t technology. We shape our tools and they shape us, as McLuhan (1964) put it. Our overall developmental lifecycle is the result of a structural coupling—in Maturana and Varela’s terminology (1987; Maturana & Poerkson, 2004)—with our technology. Not that Arthur is against technology, but making distinctions as such is not only treacherous, it’s just ludicrous.

Brian Arthur is a brilliant scholar and subsequently this book is not without insight. “A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses,” he writes on page 74, echoing Thomas Kuhn (1962). If only he’d based his book on this statement, we might have ended up with a more useful theory of technology.

Another of Arthur’s key ideas is one he calls “deep craft,” writing, “Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work” (p. 159). Eitienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John David Smith apply their deep craft to technology and the ways in which communities and technology work together. A little over a decade ago, Etienne Wenger wrote a classic text on the ways that we work and learn together called Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Applying the ideas to software, networks, and connectivity, Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (CPsquare, 2009) is a handbook that every IT manager should keep handy. It won’t tell you which specific software tools you need for your business or community, but it will guide you through your needs and illuminate aspects of your community (and its technology use) that you scarcely knew existed. For example, the simple idea that the “always on” of broadband connectivity equals the “always there” of the community (p. 186; an idea that my friend Howard Rheingold has explored in depth in his many books, most recently Smart Mobs, 2003) puts technology’s augmenting role in your community in a new light.

Wenger, White, and Smith’s many well-worn and time-tested insights yield a book rife with the same. In-depth scenarios and quick advice pop up on nearly every page, often bolstered by real-world examples and their relevant URLs, as well as excellent graphs and flowcharts. A lot of the general information in Digital Habitats might be common knowledge for the experienced technology steward, but the experience and research collected here is likely to be useful for everyone interested in creating, fostering, or maintaining a working community augmented by technology.

Technology infiltrates our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Rem Koolhaas went so far as to say that human culture wouldn’t exist at all without technology, calling it “a decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology” (1995, p. 210). As much as we may want to grasp a grand unified theory of its ubiquity, perhaps it’s just easier to look at it on the micro-level. Either way, technology is as much a part of us as we are of nature (and vice versa). Drawing lines between us and it or it and nature are useless.


Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Koolhaas, R. & Mau, B. (1995). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maturana, H. R. & Poerkson, B. (2004). From Being to Doing: The Origins of the Biology of Cognition. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl-Auer Verlag.

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1987). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rheingold, H. (2003). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Waldrop, M. M. (1998). Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.